Review: Motown The Musical Says Thanks Berry, Much
Berry Gordy's Motown label rolled out as many hit records during the 1960s as Detroit rolled out Chevrolets.
In that same feverish vein, Motown The Musical churns out these numbers off a production line, powered by a chorus of rhapsodic singers, an undercooked narrative involving Gordy's rise to greatness and his love affair with Diana Ross, plus an added Civil Rights thread for extra clout.
Our hero — and that's how Gordy is painted here — cuts his teeth writing songs for Jackie Wilson before realising he can make a packet going it alone. Cue a chance encounter with Smokey Robinson, and the decision to create Motown (a portmanteau of Motor Town) — the label and sound that would shake the music scene and so much more.
In these early numbers, Motown The Musical neatly slots tracks into the narrative: "To be loved..." pines Gordy as he dreams of making it big. "I want money!" he belts at his family, convincing them to lend him 800 bucks to build Hitsville USA — the physical foundations of Motown.
It's colourful stuff with chic 60s sets (especially as we see Hitsville knocked up before our eyes), and Gordy (played by Cedric Neal) is a likeable fella — doling out fame and fortune to half of Detroit while sticking up for his fellow black people.
Problem is, he's rather TOO likeable, and this makes a lot of sense when you realise not only has Gordy himself signed, sealed and delivered his approval for this musical — it's based on his 1994 autobiography.
To be as successful as Gordy you've got to be ruthless (indeed he often controlled every aspect of his artists' lives), but here he's the plucky underdog from soup to nuts, leaving a distinct taste of incredulousness in the mouth.
The Motown boss is also blessed with a sweet voice — sweeter, strangely, than Marvin Gaye or Stevie Wonder. Which leads us to another problem.
No one can knock the soundtrack here: Motown made some of the greatest records of all time, and this musical gives us everything on the menu. But if some of these acts were tribute bands, you'd feel short-changed; sometimes you almost need the Stars in Their Eyes-like intro to confirm who you're watching.
Another niggle: we want to hear songs like Baby Love and Reach Out I'll Be There in full. But because of the nature of this beast, songs are interrupted mid flow — usually by another song, and occasionally a bullet, when JFK and Martin Luther King are gunned down.
One of the few songs that IS served up in full, is ham on a silver salver: when Diana Ross (Lucy St Louis) pulls up a couple of audience members on stage to sing along to Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand), we want to paraphrase another of Ross's hits — Stop! In the Name of All That is Holy.
Though the later 70s and the 80s had flashes of genius for Motown — as evidenced in this show with a prodigious Michael Jackson impersonator — the hits were drying up.
This decline is reflected in the second half as the pace gradually wilts and we're faced with more excruciating exchanges between Gordy and Ross ('You're a wonderful singer 'You're a great man' 'You've got well nice eyes' 'You're a great man'), along with more on how Gordy's Motown brought black and white communities together (it did, but no need to hammer it home, mate).
By the time a teary Gordy gets his back slapped at a 25th anniversary reunion, it's clear Motown The Musical is nothing short of self-penned hagiography. Just like the good old days, Gordy's controlling hands are all over this show.
For anyone who wants to sing along to a cruise ship rendition of Ain't No Mountain (and really there's nothing wrong with that), Motown The Musical is good, if flawed, fun.
Otherwise, you're better off spending a tenner on Spotify Premium and getting your fix that way.
Motown The Musical is on at Shaftesbury Theatre, 210 Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2H 8DP until 18 February 2017. Tickets £49.60-£120. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 10 March 2016